Wednesday 14 December 2016 4:14 pm

Love at the National Theatre: an important play about welfare in Britain that’s appropriately unenjoyable

Love, at the National Theatre, is not the poverty porn that so often clutters the London stage, but a powerful indictment of the shocking state of social housing, social care, and social welfare in Britain today.

Writer-director Alexander Zeldin presents a group of disparate people forced to live side-by-side in emergency housing, and the grinding tedium that faces those whose impecuniosity is stripping them of their freedom, their privacy, and eventually their basic dignity.

The play shows that while love may be essential, it is not redemptive. Works of fiction often present love as a fantastical panacea curing all ills, but here it is palliative, making life tolerable in a world of suffering and bureaucratic indifference.

Natasha Jenkins’ set is crucial for creating a crushing sense of institutionalised banality. Dull skylights and harsh fluorescent strips are set in a ceiling of suspended tiles. Numbered doors open onto a shared space of stacking chairs and folding tables. A perfunctory kitchen takes up one corner, and with a reproduction of Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler hanging over a beige radiator, the misery is complete.

Fresh from a triumph as the villainous Peachum, in The Threepenny Opera, Nick Holder essentially inverts that role; here playing Colin, whose coarse exterior and lack of manners belie his sensitivity. He grates on the other residents, but watching him care for his elderly mother it is impossible not to warm to him.

Colin provides Love with an emotional core that is only really challenged by Paige, the young, outgoing daughter of a family evicted after a rent hike, and played on the night I attended by the precociously talented Emily Beacock.

Love would be a fitting 50th anniversary tribute to Cathy Come Home, except that it won’t reach a wide audience, and in the toxic political environment of 2016 the plight of the homeless is more likely to be met with contempt than the establishment of an organisation like Shelter or serious attempts at social reform.

Stabs at humour are sporadic, and generally fail to alleviate the pervasive gloom. The play is important, it may even be great, but it is seldom, if ever, enjoyable. And it doesn’t end. It simply stops. The lack of resolution is an appropriate echo of society’s failure to find lasting solutions to the problems faced by the play’s characters, and their counterparts in the real world.